Film review: August: Osage County (15, 121 min)

The family that stays together falls apart

Thursday, 23rd January 2014, 2:00 pm
August: Osage County: Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts
August: Osage County: Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts

Everybody hurts in August: Osage County, adapted for the screen by Tracy Letts from his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play.

Some of the dysfunctional family at the film’s emotional core suffer superficial wounds: dents to foolish pride, bruises to overinflated egos, grazes from expertly tossed verbal barbs. However, many of this conflicted clan are not so fortunate, harbouring deep psychological scars that have festered for years and are now beyond repair.

Death is the only salvation from this misery.

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In the meantime, family members react to the constant throb of anguish and self-loathing by lashing out at nearest and dearest in a futile attempt to feel better about their pitiful excuse for an existence.

John Wells’s film opens in the calm before an inevitable storm with grizzled patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) hiring a Native American woman called Johnna (Misty Upham) as a live-in carer and cook for his pill-popping, terminally ill wife, Violet (Meryl Streep).

Soon after, Beverly vanishes from his rural Oklahoma homestead and his lifeless body is recovered five days later in a nearby lake.

Violet telephones her three daughters for support and they dutifully, if reluctantly, rally to her desperate cause.

Youngest child Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) lives nearby while oldest child Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives from out of town with her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their disgruntled 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Flighty middle child Karen (Juliette Lewis) is last to materialise, waltzing into town with her new beau, sleazy Florida businessman Steve Heidebrecht (Dermot Mulroney).

Violet’s waspish sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her long-suffering husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their socially awkward son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) also crowd around the dinner table, where drug-addled Violet insists on serving up bile-slathered insults alongside Johnna’s lovingly prepared meal.

Set largely within the claustrophobic Weston house on a sweltering summer’s afternoon, August: Osage County cannot escape its theatrical origins.

The camerawork is largely static, relying on Letts’s dialogue to set the brisk tempo. He harnesses tour-de-force performances from the ensemble cast.

Streep is in blistering form, baiting her eldest daughter for a heated response with each swingeing sideswipe.

Fellow Oscar nominee Roberts is equally impressive, finally losing her cool in a hysterical scene with a plate of fish.

Martindale is mesmerising while Brits abroad McGregor and Cumberbatch offer solid accents in slightly underwritten supporting roles.

Like so many family gatherings, the film ends in tears, recriminations and the unsettling promise of more damage to come.

Drama/Comedy/Romance. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham. Director: John Wells.